Suicide and Black males: Understanding the hatred within

Many individuals are unaware of the seriousness of suicide in the African American community, especially in regards to African American males. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among African Americans ages 15-24. Furthermore, this population has had the highest increase in suicide risk across all ages groups in the United States since the 1970’s. In regards to African American males, 81% of completed suicides in 2005 were males. The rates of male suicide in 2005 were almost 7 times higher than for African American females. Additionally, 50% of all African American suicides were by firearm. As you read these statistics, the natural questions that you may be wondering are, “how did this happen and what can we do about it.” This post will seek to address these questions by exploring the factors that have contributed to the epidemic of suicidal behavior in African American males as well as outlining culturally relevant strategies that can be implemented at the personal and family/friend level.

African American males and suicidal behavior is an extremely understudied area. The limited research in this area translates into the ineffective assessment, intervention, and prevention of suicidal behavior and suicidal ideation in African American males. Part of the reason for this lack of research stems from a commonly held belief by both the African American community and the dominant culture that suicide is “a White thing.” However, as the previous statistics note, suicide is becoming more and more of a serious issue for Black males. Missing from this dialogue in the literature is the idea that suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior look different in regards to their causes which will subsequently influence how you address these issues.

Men in America are expected to project characteristics of strength, individuality, autonomy, dominance, stoicism, and physical aggression. For Black males identifying with and fulfilling these roles has been a challenge that often times they have been unable to meet. One explanation may be that Black males often times receive conflicted messages about Black masculinity from mainstream society and the Black community. On one hand, in mainstream society, Black males are often portrayed in a negative light (i.e. overly aggressive, sexually promiscuous, lazy, unmotivated). However, in the Black community, Black men are expected to live up to the three P’s: Priest, Provider, and Protector. Depression, in Black males may stem from this conflict in the form of a failed attempt to reconcile these two images/ views into one successful individual. This failed attempt is further compounded by the fact that in general men are more likely to rely on themselves, to withdraw socially, and try to talk themselves out of feeling depressed. So what has happened is that we have a number of Black males (especially between the ages of 18-24) who due to societal limitations in regards to finances and education are unable to fulfill the expectations bestowed upon them. This causes these individuals to experience a chronic feeling of silent frustration. I believe that this trend is most evident in the increase in the number of suicides among Black males. Central to this phenomenon is the experience of racial self-hatred.

The research literature has suggested that the development of a Black identity serves the functions of providing protection against psychological injury, achieving meaning in one’s definition of Black and developing a multicultural perspective that serves as a bridge between one’s Blackness and the greater community. Black males that endorse Self-Hatred racial attitudes have not achieved these attitudes. Instead, these individuals have developed an intense Black self-hatred that stems from the incorporation of negative stereotypes. Furthermore, the experience of racial self-hatred significantly influenced their experience of psychological distress. This psychological distress contributes significantly to the experience of depressive symptoms which can lead to feelings of hopelessness and suicidal ideation.

So where do we go from here? It appears that there are a number of factors that have contributed to suicidal behavior and suicidal ideation in African American males. First, there has been a limited amount of research to investigate culturally appropriate suicide assessment measures, interventions, and preventative strategies. Secondly, the stigma surrounding suicide in the Black community has caused it to remain an unspoken topic that has be perpetuated by the dominate cultures belief that suicidal behavior is negligible in this community. Lastly, the racial identity of African American males when underdeveloped can contribute to the experience of hopelessness and frustration and an ineffective buffer against depressive symptoms. I would like to propose a couple of suggestions.

First, in regards to disclosing feelings of suicide, African Americans often time indicate moral objections, survival, and coping beliefs as reasons not to follow through with a suicide attempt. Present within these reasons are spiritual undertones, the absence of self-hatred racial attitudes, and a belief in the resiliency that has been supported by a strong network of family and friends. It is important to assess for and cultivate these reasons for living in Black males who have expressed feelings of hopelessness. Secondly, as a community, we must seek to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Until we have an honest conversation about mental health and actively seek out ways to intervene and prevent, we will continue to be plagued by the senseless deaths of our African American men at their own hands and at the hands of other African American males. Mental health, just like physical health isn’t something that prayer only can fix. If someone has cancer you wouldn’t tell them to just pray about. Hopefully, you would also recommend that they seek out a medical doctor. This same concept should parallel our intervention strategies for mental health issues. Additionally, considering the fact that depressive symptoms and feelings of hopelessness can stem from the endorsement of self-hatred attitudes, as a community, we must develop ways to increase our young Brothers awareness of the potential that they have because of the people they come from. By instilling this sense of pride, we can help our young Brothers reconcile the negative stereotypes they see in the media, with the potentially negative influence they may experience with their peer groups, by creating a positive dissonance with the message “You are important and capable of doing great things.”

Silent Frustration: Depression and the Black male

Depression is a syndrome characterized by a number of symptoms including the following: depressed or irritable mood, loss of interest in daily activities, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, fatigue, and changes in sleep, appetite, or activity level. Depression causes a decrease in the quality of life as well as impairment in social and occupational functioning. Depression is becoming a growing issue in the Black community. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, Blacks have been shown to have higher rates of depression than Whites (specifically in regards to Black women). However, there has been a significant gap in the research pertaining to depression in Black males. This lack of research has led to an under diagnosis of Black males, leaving many clinically depressed Brothers with untreated symptoms. There is significant research to suggest that Black males are under diagnosed because (based on the cultural experience of Black males) depressive symptoms may look different in this population.


Men in America are expected to project characteristics of strength, individuality, autonomy, dominance, stoicism, and physical aggression. For Black males identifying with and fulfilling these roles has been a challenge that often times they have been unable to meet. One explanation may be that Black males often times receive conflicted messages about Black masculinity from mainstream society and the Black community. On one hand, in mainstream society, Black males are often portrayed in a negative light (i.e. overly aggressive, sexually promiscuous, lazy, unmotivated). However, in the Black community, Black men are expected to live up to the three P’s: Priest, Provider, and Protector. Depression, in Black males may stem from this conflict in the form of a failed attempt to reconcile these two images/ views into one successful individual. This failed attempt is further compounded by the fact that in general, men are more likely to rely on themselves, to withdraw socially, and try to talk themselves out of feeling depressed. So what has happened is that we have a number of Black males (especially between the ages of 18-24) who due to societal limitations in regards to finances and education are unable to fulfill the expectations bestowed upon them. This causes these individuals to experience a chronic feeling of silent frustration. This trend is most evident in the increased number of suicides among Black males.


Currently suicide ranks as the third most common cause of death among Black males between the ages of 15-24. Suicide represents feelings of anger and hopelessness turned inward on the individual. Typically we think of Black male anger as being more outwardly expressed in the form of aggression (especially towards other Black men and women). Between 1976 and 2005, Black on Black offenses accounted for 94 % of homicides reported. However, current statistics indicate that while still high compared to other racial groups, Black on Black homicide is decreasing. On the other hand, suicide among Black males is increasing with the suicide rate doubling since 1980. This suggests that as societal pressures mount for Black males they continue to develop deep anger that manifests itself as violence. However, instead of showing aggression to others, they are turning on themselves.


So what does this have to do with Black males and depression? When you think of depression as a disorder the first thing that comes to mind is a depressed mood. However, one symptom that often gets overlooked as a sign of depression is irritability. This is the key to identifying depression in Black males. What may be viewed as being overly aggressive may be a warning sign of a Brother experiencing silent frustration. Unable to achieve the American dream and hampered by the stigmas associated with being a Black man, he may be unable to voice his sadness and instead turns in on himself. So before you write off a Brother as just an “angry Black guy” take time to understand that his anger might be the tip of the iceberg and persistence and acknowledgment may lead to deeper revelations

Seven affirmations Black people need to hear daily

You have claim to the seat at the table or the ability to build a new one for all people 

The complexion of your skin and the texture of your hair are beautiful 

Your ancestors built a culture based on nothing but memory and now that culture is emulated all over the world  

Black lives matter 

You define your Blackness 

You determine your value, not society 

I see your struggle and your pain, but you can break through glass ceilings, scale insurmountable walls, and complete seemingly  unending journeys because your people and your ancestors have your back 

How to encourage Black males to go to therapy

Support. Going to therapy is an incredibly vulnerable experience. You are trusting your inner most thoughts and feelings to a professional who is not a friend or family member. For Black males, this experience is compounded by the expectations for their racialized masculinity and the inherent mistrust they might have about the process and outcomes of therapy. To effectively encourage Black males to go to therapy actively support their decision to seek help through your words and actions. As appropriate ask how therapy is going. Offer a ride to and from therapy if needed. Be available to process a challenging thought or topic that came up during therapy. Be an accountability partner for any homework or tasks that have been assigned. And provide consistent reminders that they have made the right choice to seek out help.  

Involve. Many Black males who receive treatment for mental health issues are engaging because they were requested or mandated to participate. The requests usually come from a concerned loved one or friend who leverages the strength of their relationship with the Black male to convince him to attend therapy. Mandates for treatment participation usually stem from institutional involvement with psychiatric facilitates or the criminal justice system. When individuals are forced or coerced to engage in therapy, they are more likely to be less open, have poorer attendance, and to benefit less from the therapy process. To effectively encourage more Black males to go to therapy we must involve them in the process as a collaborative effort. Greater collaboration will contribute to better attendance, therapeutic process, and healing outcomes.

Normalize. Although comparatively small, there more Black males attending therapy than ever before. In the media, we are constantly seeing examples of prominent Black males opening up about their experience in therapy and how it has been helpful to their identity development, relationships, and emotional health. Furthermore, from barbershops to churches, Black males are being exposed to and educated about the process of therapy. To effectively encourage Black males to go to therapy, we must let Black males know that they are not the only ones who have struggled emotionally or relationally and that there are individuals out there just like them who go to therapy. These Black males are not ridiculed, ostracized or thought of as less than for seeking the help they need. Black males do go and benefit from therapy.

Acknowledge.  Society does not give Black males much permission to engage in emotional expression or to experience significant vulnerability. When permission is given, it comes with the caveat that the Black male will limit his emotional expression to anger and his coping strategies for vulnerability to aggression. Having to work within these parameters creates a situation of inaccessibility for Black males to pursue therapy services and to engage in the very hard work of developing a trusting and vulnerable relationship with a mental health professional. To effectively encourage Black males to go to therapy, we must explicitly acknowledge that this dynamic exists. Additionally, we must name the tension that they might feel between being adhering to societal expectations for their racialized masculinity and processing challenging emotions, behaviors, and relationships.

Understanding How Cultural Messages are Passed Down in Black Families

Role of the Black Family 

· Develop and affirm Black identity

· Explore and practice social roles

· Prepare and develop coping skills for racism and discrimination

· Provide foundational expectations concerning emotional, relational, and psychological expression and well-being

Challenges faced by the Black Family  

· Constant invalidation

· Cultural scrutiny

· Historical trauma 

Strengths of the Black Family

· Kinship ties

· Spiritual rootedness

· Adaptability of family roles

· High achievement orientation

· Strong work orientation

Cultural messages and coping with racial trauma

Racial socialization

Black families and racial communication about racialized experiences

·          Cultural Pride (Be proud to be Black in the face of racism)

·          Preparation for bias (Society will treat you differently because your Black)

·          Promotion of mistrust (Institutions intentionally hurt Black people)

·          Egalitarianism-silence about race (We should or shouldn’t talk about race)

Two types of Racial socialization

Legacy Approach

· Describes the state of racial relations and offers “sayings” as advice for coping with racism (e.g., You have to work twice as hard to get half as much)

· Aspirational/informational

· Emphasize the importance of racial dynamics knowledge (e.g., racism exists but doesn’t offer skills to address the experience of racism)

Literacy Approach

· Ability to accurately read, rewrite, and resolve racially stressful encounters

· Emphasizes skill and practice before a racial event has occurred

Composed of three parts:

· Racial Stress Appraisal (What racist thing is happening?)

· Racial Coping Efficacy (Can I handle it?)

· Racial Coping Reappraisal (Did I resolve the racist situation?)

Top ten affirmations Black males need to hear daily

You matter

Truly know yourself and no enemy within or without can conquer you

You are enough

You are here for a purpose and your purpose is for your people

Society doesn’t define you, you define your Blackness

Your history started before slavery

It’s ok to not be ok

Black males cry too

You have been given the resiliency of your ancestors in your DNA

You are a Black male, you have the focus of Malcolm, the vision of Martin, the self-determination of Garvey, the intellect of Du Bois, and the perseverance of Lewis in your spirit

Five challenges facing Black males going back to school

Lack of representation. This year, many Black males will be attending schools where there are no faces that look like their own in regard to teachers, administrators, or staff members.  According to the US Department of Education, Black males account for just 2% of US educators. The literature has indicated significant consequences for the lack of Black male representation in school systems related to poorer academic performance, behavioral issues, and socioemotional challenges.  However, in schools where Black male teachers are present, Black male students are reported as having fewer behavioral issues, score better on standardized tests, and experience a greater flexibility in the expression and performance of their Black masculinity. “What they see is what they will be,” and for Black males to imagine academic success as a possibility they need to see Black male educators who embody and promote education excellence.

Cultural competency of teachers, administrators, and staff. According to the US Department of Education, close to 80% of the teacher workforce is White and female. However, nearly half the student population in public schools are persons of color and the literature suggests that this number is growing every year. The potential cross-cultural disconnect, limited meaningful exposure to culturally different individuals, and inadequate access to diversity training can contribute to significant cultural conflicts between teachers and students of color. The literature has indicated that these cultural conflicts and challenges in cultural communication negatively influence academic and behavioral outcomes for students of color. To effectively reach and transform the lives of these students academically, teachers must be able to maximize the cultural strengths of each student. However, given the increasingly disproportionate racial makeup of public school teachers vs students, general discomfort reported by teachers in regards to teaching cultural different students, and the overall lack of preparation teachers have for managing the challenges of these students, many public school teachers struggle to engage in culturally responsive teaching practices

Lower expectations of academic performance.  Several studies have found that a teachers beliefs about how students from different racial backgrounds learn and their subsequent expectations for academic achievement can influence how they conduct their lessons. Students of color whose teachers had lower expectations for their academic achievement experienced more academic failure as well as behavioral issues. Researchers have noted that a significant contributor to the lowered expectations held by the teachers is an ignorance or outright rejection of different cultural expressions of development among the students that could be used to build knowledge and skills. Students of color will only go as far as we perceive their potential and provide encouragement. We can not limit their opportunities before they have even imagined the possibilities for success.

Higher expectations for behavioral issues. Black males have been branded as dumb, deviant, and dangerous in US culture. This narrative concerning the Black male experience has influenced the way they are perceived in the school system as well. The physical space occupied, the use of tone, inflection, cadence, and volume, and the “cool pose” portrayed Black males are consistently perceived as threatening in the school environment. The literature has suggested that this perception of threat contributes significantly to the disproportionate number of Black males who receive disciplinary action in the form of detentions, suspensions, and arrests. This phenomenon has effectively created a situation where the school environment has become a significant referral source for the criminal justice system via the school to prison pipeline.    

Community and systemic trauma. The rates of suicide and depression are rising rapidly for Black males under the age of 18. The systemic challenges faced by Black males in the form of differing trauma experiences (e.g., racial, vicarious, and physical) and underdiagnosed depression and anxiety have created a chronic space for school aged Black males where they feel hopeless, helpless, and alone. These challenges are further compounded by the cultural misperceptions that translate the experience of a sad or anxious Black male into an angry or dangerous Black male within the school setting.  Society has not given permission to Black males to experience sadness or to respond to trauma exposure in ways that allow for meaningful process and healing. Instead, their coping behaviors are seen as confirmation of the dumb, deviant, and dangerous Black male narrative.